Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Rating the All-Star/Hall of Fame Week: 5 Stars *****

All-Star week continues to get bigger and better each year, and this year was the complete NASCAR experience. From the pit crew challenge to the Hall of Fame inductions, everything involved in this week was worthy of a 5 Star Rating.

In one of the most competitive events of the week, the pit crew challenge had teams battling head-to-head throughout the evening, until the #11 team followed its driver’s lead and all it did was win. In the final it nosed out the #31 team, which almost won the event for the second consecutive year. The results from that event determined the order of pit stall selection, a cool twist to the normal qualifying procedure, and this year it was needed as qualifying sessions for both the Sprint Showdown and All-Star Race were rained out.

After waiting out the rain, the trucks got on the track for their turn at the “Beast of the Southeast.” Per usual, Kyle Busch led for the majority of the event. However, this week he was able to hold on despite late-race cautions and take home his second truck series victory for his own team.

Saturday night was time for the main event, and the Sprint Cup stars battled it out under the lights. The first three segments of the All-Star race were as clean as any race we have had all season. I’ve said several times recently that this group of drivers is maturing, and 20 or so of the best in the sport showed that long stretches without a caution can be done. The fourth and final segment, however, was a completely different story. Just like last year, everybody went crazy in the 10 lap dash for cash. While no driver was out of the race after segment three, only 13 drivers took the checkered flag.

Anything and everything was possible in those final laps. There was a big one, the champ spun out and two Joe Gibbs Racing teammates had to settle things in the hauler after the race. What was that about the new Kyle Busch? That looked a lot like the same brash kid who left the track at Texas while his team fixed his car in 2007. According to Denny Hamlin, Coach Gibbs and the two drivers were able to talk things out and it will be business as usual next Sunday. Hamlin did say he had to remind Busch this was not a points race. That’s why we love the All-Star race. Things happen in that race that fans don’t see week in and week out.

Also, congratulations to Kurt Busch and the #2 team. Busch was wearing out the high groove throughout most of the race, and that final 10 minute break allowed the team to get the car back in shape and dialed in so he could take off on those final restarts, which were very similar to the restarts in the last race that he won at Atlanta.

Finally, Sunday marked the induction of five NASCAR greats into the brand new Hall of Fame. What a great day. The ceremony was terrific. This will be a fantastic annual event. Throughout the coming years, people will be able to hear stories that have never, but should have been, told. Also, each year there will be five new people that will be honored. Now, even if someone’s favorite driver has retired, they will still be able to celebrate their career in the Hall of Fame. Congratulations NASCAR. This is great for the sport.

Next week is the longest race of the year, the Coca-Cola 600. After the shootouts of the All-Star race, endurance will be a factor in the 600. This is an event where the best will likely rise to the top of the leaderboard by the end of the evening. And, based on the way the #48 took control of the Saturday night event, he very well could do the same in the Sunday night race. Maybe he will be able to close the deal in this one.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Rating the Autism Speaks 400: 3 Stars ***

After a couple weeks under the lights, the Sprint Cup Series returned to Sunday afternoon for a battle at the “Monster Mile.” Miles actually didn’t tear up too many cars as this was a pretty clean race. However, similar to last week at Darlington, a late mistake cost the race an exciting finish. The Dover spring race gets a 3 Star Rating.

This had the feel of a classic race in a couple different ways. Five cautions was the lowest number of yellows in a race since the fall race at Phoenix last year. As I said last week, this group of drivers is slowly but surely maturing and not wrecking as much, which will lead to fewer cautions overall. Now, take Sam Hornish Jr. out of the mix and the number of cautions would drop in half. Also, to have a five caution race at Dover was rather unexpected. Dover is one of those tracks that is known for collecting more cars than normal in a given wreck because of the banking around the track. However, there wasn’t one wreck Sunday that involved more than a single car.

One thing that may have lowered the number of cautions, however, was the large number of start and parks Sunday. No less than seven cars parked without any real damage early in the race. Plus, only 13 cars finished on the lead lap. For once NASCAR didn’t throw a caution to bunch the field up, especially after Johnson’s pit miscue that allowed Busch to check out from the rest of the field. Thank you, NASCAR. The integrity of the race is appreciated.

Had Jimmie Johnson not sped coming out of the pits on his final stop, there would have been one heck of a battle to the finish between Johnson and Kyle Busch. Those two were by far the two best cars in the second half of the race and after Johnson was penalized, Busch destroyed the rest of the field. Once again, many conspiracy theorists (race fans) thought NASCAR was holding the #48 team’s hand throughout each race and wouldn’t let anything bad happen to it. Well, that theory can be thrown out the window because that penalty directly cost Johnson a shot at the win.

Also, there have finally been a couple of races that didn’t have a caution in the final 10 laps. Those things seem to go in cycles. Last year there was a stretch where every race came down to fuel mileage. We have yet to have one of those yet, but we are coming up on several tracks where fuel mileage often comes into play.

Now everything moves back to Charlotte for All-Star week. Lots of things will be going on in the Charlotte area with the pit crew challenge Wednesday, the Rev’d Up concert Thursday, racing Friday and Saturday and the Hall of Fame inductions Sunday. No, this is not an off week for the Cup series. If anything, even though no points will be handed out, the teams will be busier this week than on a normal weekend.

This is always an exciting weekend and is made even better this year with the inaugural Hall of Fame inductions. Congratulations to Bill France, Bill France Jr., Junior Johnson, Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and their families. The sport cannot hand out any bigger honor than being elected to the first NASCAR Hall of Fame class. Enjoy the week because there will be plenty to keep a NASCAR fan busy.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Rating the Southern 500: 3 Stars ***

The Sprint Cup Series headed back to its roots Saturday night for an evening with “The Lady in Black.” A great finish was beginning to take shape, but a late caution with 26 laps to go put a stop to that. Overall, the eminent stock car race of the South gets a 3 Star Rating.

Denny Hamlin continues to amaze after winning his third race of the season and second after having knee surgery less than a month ago. Also, the tracks he has won at are some of the toughest on the circuit: Martinsville, Texas and now Darlington. However, had Joey Logano not spun out near the end of the race, Jeff Burton may have been the one standing in Victory Lane.

Both Jeffs have had interesting starts to the season. Gordon and Burton are running very well week in and week out, but have yet to be able to bring home a trophy. When drivers get on a roll like this, it is almost guaranteed that something will jump up and bite them at the end of a race to prevent them from winning. Saturday it was Burton’s turn as he ran over the air hose on his final pit stop. After that, there was no competition left for Hamlin as he left the field in his dust during that final run.

Overall, this race had an old-school feel to it. No, the track did not eat up tires as it had in the past, but track position was important and about the only way to get around someone was to move them out of the way. There is always a lot of talk about how great it is that several of the tracks have several different grooves. While that certainly works for the big, wide tracks, one groove can make for exciting races at smaller tracks.

Although there were 11 cautions Saturday night, there were still a couple of long stretches of green-flag racing. That’s another reason why I prefer the 500-mile races. The marathon part of the 500-mile race is part of racing and something that should be appreciated. In a few weeks the Coca-Cola 600 will be upon us and that is always one of the best races of the season.

Also, with less new up-and-coming drivers jumping into Sprint Cup cars, I think over the next couple of seasons we will see cleaner and cleaner races. For much of the last decade it was not uncommon to have six legitimate contenders for the Raybestos Rookie of the Year. Lately, however, there are only a couple each season. As the drivers currently in the series continue to mature and improve, I think the number of cautions during the races will come down, and that is definitely not a bad thing.

So after visiting a track with some of the best nicknames in the sport, the series moves to another track with a great nickname in the “Monster Mile” at Dover. We are in a stretch right now of several physical tracks lined up one after the other, and it is nice to have a feel that the drivers can work to improve how they are running on their own without having to come to the pits before they can make up any ground.

Finally, this week marks a very important moment in NASCAR history as the new NASCAR Hall of Fame opens its doors for the first time. If the previews are any indication, this place is going to be like Christmas morning for a NASCAR fan. Hope everyone had a fantastic Mother’s Day weekend and has a couple of great weeks coming up, because the one of the greatest racing months ever is still just getting started.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Rating the Heath Calhoun 400: 2 Stars **

Following one of the best races in NASCAR history is always going to be difficult, but Richmond seemed like a track that could handle the pressure. However, Saturday night’s race was dominated by two cars and NASCAR once again pulled out the debris caution a few times to keep things together. Overall, the spring race at Richmond gets a 2 Star Rating.

Kyle Busch finally broke through into the win column at Richmond. He certainly had the dominant car throughout most of the night, leading 226 of 400 laps while Jeff Gordon led for another 144 without bringing home a trophy. Those two drivers left a whole 30 laps for someone else to lead, and Jeff Burton led 20 of those. Not quite the record-setting pace that was kept at Talladega.

The announcers were big proponents of the wave-around rule a year ago. I, however, can’t say I’ve warmed up to it yet. Plus, the way things played out Saturday evening was bogus. There will never again be a race with less than 10 cars left on the lead lap at the finish.

It was pretty darn convenient that just after everyone had completed green flag pit stops and Jimmie Johnson went a lap down, the debris caution waved. With only nine cars on the lead lap, nearly the entire field was brought back into contention as 18 cars took the wave around.

There are so many free passes given in NASCAR these days. I understand the safety issue with drivers racing back to the line for a caution, but back when it was allowed, the drivers themselves dealt with who would get a lap back or who would be kept a lap down by how hard the leader raced that car back to the line. Now the drivers have basically no say at all in who they will be competing against at the end of a race because most of the field will be on the lead lap regardless. Remember, this is racing, not just TV entertainment. Real competition happens on the track, no script is needed.

There was no incentive to fight to stay on the lead lap in the first half of the race Saturday night. As long as a car stayed only one lap behind, they were going to get their chance to be in contention at some point because twice NASCAR handed out a debris caution for cars to get back on the lead lap. Then, to make things worse, 10 laps later another debris caution was thrown so the wave around cars could pit and everyone would be on the same pit cycle.

We go through this every year, and this is one of the things that keep NASCAR from getting respect, not only from outsiders, but from its very own fans. Come on NASCAR, stop playing mini-games within the races.

One more quick point. The tire combination used at Richmond was the same that was run at Phoenix, which was also not one of the greatest races of the year until cautions created a close finish. Goodyear has done a great job for the most part this season, but those flat tracks may need to be looked at again. Hopefully there is a different combination for New Hampshire or that could be a long day.

So next week the series heads to “The Lady in Black” for the Southern 500 in Darlington, S.C. There is no reason this shouldn’t be a good race. The track still has grip and the spoiler may actually make a difference on this track. Cars already run loose to begin with at that track, and the spoiler should loosen things up all the more. Have a great week and Mother’s Day weekend.